The Unissued Notes of the Armed Forces in the South of Russia

Peter Symes

After the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917, Imperial Russia began to fragment. In southern Russia the Don Cossack Province refused to recognize the Bolshevik regime and sought an independent future. Other provinces and administrative regions sought to do the same but the Bolshevik regime sought to maintain the boundaries of Imperial Russia and launched the Red Army against the provinces of Russia who did not recognize their authority, and a civil war developed. In southern Russia the Volunteer Army was raised under former Imperial officers and before long, the Don Cossacks and the Volunteer Army formed an alliance which joined the opposition to the Bolsheviks, a broad alliance often identified as the White Russians.

            As part of their effort to establish their independence, the Don Cossacks commenced issuing their own banknotes, which continued to be issued during a short occupation of the Don Cossack Province by the Red Army in 1918. These notes[1] became the de facto currency throughout southern Russia, even after the Volunteer Army began to issue their own notes. A second issue of four notes dated 1919[2] by the Don Cossacks soon entered circulation, and a series of notes prepared by the Armed Forces in the South of Russia, i.e. the Volunteer Army, dated 1919 also entered circulation. Later, the Armed Forces in the South of Russia issued 1920-dated notes, which were prepared in the printing houses run by the Cossack administration[3]. By April 1920 the notes of the Cossacks and Volunteer Army were being printed at the Feodosiya Printing House in the Crimea, following their retreat to this region.

            The 1920 issue by the Armed Forces in the South of Russia[4] is sometimes referred to as the ‘Vranghel’ (or Wrangel) issues, as P. N. Vranghel took control of the Armed Forces in the South of Russia from A. I. Denikin while these notes were being issued. The man responsible for the notes prepared for the Armed Forces in the South of Russia was Mikhail Vladimirovich Bernatski, who held the position of Minister of Finance in the governments of A. I. Denikin and P. N. Vranghel, and he signed the banknotes as ‘Head of the Finance Department’. Prior to the revolution in 1917, M. V. Bernatski had been the Professor of Political Economy and Currency Circulation at the St. Petersburg Polytechnic Institute.

            By the middle of 1919 the problems of supporting two circulating currencies were exacerbated by rising inflation and a continual paucity of banknotes. In his role as Minister of Finance, M. V. Bernatski saw the issue of Don Cossack currency and the currency of the Armed Forces in the South of Russia as a temporary solution. He sought to unify the currencies and to create a currency for which the Armed Forces in the South of Russia did not have to rely on their allies, the Cossacks. To address the currency problems, M. V. Bernatski oversaw the establishment of four printing houses under the control of the Armed Forces in the South of Russia and he arranged for banknotes to be printed overseas.

            In London on 12 August 1919 the head of a delegation to London from the Armed Forces in the South of Russia, M. A. Dragomirov, signed a contract with Waterlow and Sons to print banknotes in the denominations of 50, 100 and 500 rubles. The total face value of the notes was to be four billion rubles, which in the middle of 1919 is estimated to have been half the circulation in southern Russia. The notes were expected to be delivered by November 1919 but the first consignment did not arrive in Novorossiisk until 19 January 1920. The notes of 25 and 100 rubles printed in America are thought to have arrived by the same ship.

            In March 1920, two months after the notes were delivered, Novorossiisk was evacuated as the Red Army advanced. Most of the administration of the Armed Forces in the South of Russia went to the Crimea, but the recently delivered banknotes were taken to Turkey. There is no record of what denominations were delivered to Novorossiisk and then evacuated to Turkey, but it is understood notes of 25 and 100 rubles dated 1918 and printed in the United States of America for the Provisional Government[5] were also evacuated to Turkey.[6]

            Notes prepared by Waterlow and Sons[7] for the ‘Russian State’ under the authority of M. V. Bernatski are known to include the denominations of 1, 3, 5, 50, 100 and 500 rubles[8]. Notes of the initial order carried the signatures of M. V. Bernatski as Head of the Finance Department and D. Nikiforov as the Head of the Credit Department. D. Nikiforov was appointed to his position on 10 September 1919, but was replaced by B. Suvchinski around 14 December 1919. From 7 to 27 June 1920 M. V. Bernatski was in London and it is believed he arranged for the later delivery of the notes, which carried the signature of B. Suvchinski.

            On 11 August 1920 an English ship arrived in Sebastopol bringing machinery for the Feodosiya Printing House. It has been reported the same ship brought 25- and 100-ruble credit notes of American printing and possibly the Waterlow notes which had been sent to Turkey. This development appears to have been part of an effort to introduce a currency reform. In early October 1920 a gathering of financial experts, including representatives from Paris, came to discuss a currency reform proposed by M. V. Bernatski. Among the ideas proposed, was to replace all the notes being issued from the Crimea with the notes printed in England at a ratio of 100 rubles to 1 ruble. The meetings held to discuss the reforms were abandoned after stormy debates failed to achieve an outcome and, in the end, the lack of an outcome was meaningless as the Red Army overran the Crimea and the English notes fell into the hands of the Bolsheviks on 14 November 1920. The notes prepared by Waterlow and Sons were never issued.

            Of the notes which survived capture by the Red Army, the 1-, 3- and 5-ruble credit notes are rare. It is possible only samples of these denomination arrived in Southern Russia; perhaps they were discarded and destroyed because low-denomination notes were of no use by late 1920; or there may be another reason. Credit notes of 50, 100 and 500 rubles printed by Waterlow and Sons survive in large quantities and are available on the collector market. The 50-ruble notes (Figure 1) were produced only with the signature of B. Suvchinski as the Head of the Credit Department, while the 100- and 500-ruble notes (Figure 2 and Figure 3) were printed first with the signature of D. Nikiforov as the Head of the Credit Department and later with the signature of B. Suvchinski – making two varieties of the high-denomination notes (see Figure 4). Additionally, the two high-denomination notes with the signature of D. Nikiforov have the serial number prefix and the serial number printed separately to the rest of the note; while the notes signed by B. Suvchinski have the serial number prefixes printed with other elements of the plate printing and only the serial numbers are printed separately (see Figure 5).

            All three notes illustrated here show strong similarities in design. The helmeted head of a woman, an allegorical representation of ‘Russia’, dominates the front of the 50-ruble note and the backs of the 100- and 500-ruble notes. This image is undoubtedly the most distinguishing and attractive feature of the notes. Classical design elements construct the rest of the design, including the common use of a medallion of St. George slaying a dragon. While the 50-, 100- and 500-ruble notes have obvious elements in common, there are intriguing differences between the 50-ruble note and the 100- and 500-ruble notes. The differences lie mainly in the text written on the notes and the watermarks.

            On the 50-ruble note the Russian text, other than the denomination and the titles of the signatories, reads:

            These texts were also used on the unissued 1-ruble note and probably on the unissued 3- and 5-ruble notes. On the 100-ruble note, the text, other then the value of the note and the titles of the signatories, reads:

            The watermark used on the 50-ruble note is a mosaic pattern which covers the entire note and this watermark is used for the unissued 1-, 3- and 5-ruble notes. The paper with the mosaic watermark was also used on varieties of the notes printed and issued by the Armed Forces in the South of Russia dated 1920 (i.e. the notes identified in Endnote 4). It is understood paper with this watermark was brought to South Russia from England, but it is not clear if the lower denomination notes in the series under discussion were printed in England or at one of the printing houses established in Russia. (The use of the earlier signature of B. Suvchinski suggests the notes were printed in England, although the printing plates could have been brought to Russia.) The 100-ruble note uses a watermark of ‘100’ at the left, above the serial number, and the 500-ruble note similarly uses the watermark ‘500’.

            Another interesting difference between the higher and lower denomination notes is the higher denomination notes carry the date ‘1919’ on the back of the notes, whereas the lower denomination notes carry no date. Also, the high denomination notes use a serial number and serial number prefix, while the 50-ruble note uses a serial number and a serial number suffix. The three unissued notes – 1, 3 and 5 rubles – are known only without serial numbers.

            Another intriguing mystery of these notes is the size of the 500-ruble notes. The 50-ruble note measures 141 x 82 mm and the 100-ruble note measures 199 x 95 mm; but the 500-ruble note comes in two sizes – 204 x 96 mm for the first variety and 200 x 94 mm for the second variety. The two varieties of the 500-ruble note can be identified with the following differences:

These varieties also exist for the 100-ruble note.[9]

            The surviving notes of this issue are prized by collectors, not just because they constitute part of the vast number of notes prepared and issued during the Russian Civil War, but because many people regard the artwork and design of these notes as particularly pleasing. The helmeted allegorical figure of ‘Russia’ is well liked by many collectors and it is regarded as one of the more famous representations of an allegorical figure on a banknote.


Much of this article is based on information in Catalog of Banknotes of the Civil War in Russia, Volume III, Southeastern region, Crimea, North Caucasus (1917–1920) written and published by Mikhail Istomin in 2009.